Writing into the Sunset

In the saddle with Canadian novelists

Few distinctions between Canada and the United States seem as profound as those that differentiate the paths taken in settling the western frontier. Our side of the border saw centralized control, early imposition of law and order, and the state’s monopoly of violence; their side witnessed land rushes, gold rushes, vigilantes, range wars, desperadoes, gunmen, outlaws, and decades of total war. That side pioneered a genre of film and television that, at times, has dominated Hollywood; this side produced actors who learned to hide their accents so they could play their neighbours’ heroes.

Canadian writers looking to corral some of the western action have taken several different approaches, but nearly all of them have engaged, in one way or another, with a nearly 130-year-old essay written by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner; even those who have sought to debunk its central argument have ended up reinforcing its power. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” from 1893, Turner made much of the “closing” of the frontier in the United States, at least according to the 1890 census. He described “unsettled” land —“the meeting point between savagery and civilization”— as an environment that created self-reliance, equality, and cooperation. For him, the challenge of clearing forests, breaking the soil, and building towns created the nation’s very character:

That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.

Shortly after the essay began to circulate, the first literary Western, Owen Wister’s The Virginian, presented readers with a character who personified Turner’s ideal American: a brave, unrefined, and chivalrous cowboy who wins the heart of a schoolmarm while defeating a murderous Wyoming rustler. Every Western hero since has followed in the nameless Virginian’s footsteps — or has been deliberately distanced from him.

In Canada, unlike in the United States, treaty making and policing preceded most European settlement and thus prevented the sort of action that fuels most Western plots. So Canadian writers working within the genre have had to develop unique strategies. Some have shown the Turnerian forces crossing the border into the northern prairies. Others have set their work entirely in the United States. Still others have found distinctly Canadian ways of exploring the impact of the frontier and its closing. All have submitted the history of westward settlement in North America to interrogation and revision.

Cross-border connections are central in Guy Vanderhaeghe’s three Westerns: The Englishman’s Boy, from 1996, The Last Crossing, from 2002, and A Good Man, from 2011. The Englishman’s Boy, which won a Governor General’s Award, depicts frontier America as a moral wasteland, with the titular character joining a group of wolf-hunting outlaws on a search for stolen horses that ends with the brutality of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in June 1873. While one storyline follows the boy and the wolfers on their ride from Montana to the North‑West Territories (in what is now southern Saskatchewan), another focuses on a Canadian writer in silent-era Los Angeles, who becomes swept up by a charismatic filmmaker named Damon Ira Chance. Chance wants to outshine D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation with a script about the conquest of the West — a film that takes Turner’s thesis to its darkest extremes.

“The American spirit is a frontier spirit,” Chance says as he explains his vision to the hapless writer, “restless, impatient of constraint, eager for a look over the next hill, the next peek around the bend in the river. The American destiny is forward momentum.”

Chance wants to turn the story of the wolfers’ depredations in the Cypress Hills into an American epic that will harden hearts for the coming global wars. In one chilling scene, he carries on an extended monologue about drawing strength from one’s violent national history. To counter Italian and German armies — inspired by the racial memory of ancient Rome and Teutonic hordes — America will need to embrace its own courageous and violent inheritance: “They who resurrect the savage ghosts of their past must be challenged with the savage ghosts of our past.” (Ultimately, Chance’s attempt to repurpose the Cypress Hills Massacre ends badly for all — in ways that perpetuate the horrors of the frontier.)

The Englishman’s Boy fits with a common Canadian assumption that violence and injustice are foreign imports. The wolfers are Americans, after all. The one good man among them is a Canadian, and things don’t go well for him. The boy himself stands in for Canada. At the beginning of the novel, he’s an impoverished teenager running away from a violent family, likely Appalachians. Hired by a travelling aristocrat, he’s later forced to join the wolfers when the Englishman dies. He’s a young Canada — abandoned by one master, taken up by another, and traumatized by all he has witnessed.

Vanderhaeghe returned to the theme of relative innocence in his third Western, A Good Man. In it, a former NWMP constable named Wesley Case attempts to act as a go‑between for Colonel James Walsh during the delicate diplomatic dealings with the Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull, when his people take refuge in Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As a Canadian Heritage Minute would have it, the North West Mounted Police dealt honestly with Sitting Bull, in sharp contrast to the U.S. Cavalry. Yes, Canada resisted entreaties to allow the American military to follow Sitting Bull north. But as Vanderhaeghe shows, it also withheld aid while the refugees fought ­hunger — which eventually forced them to return to the United States. “I could almost hear them thinking,” Case says of those who, like him, represent the British Empire. “ ‘Yes, British fair dealing has tamed the savage.’ But as yet, fair dealing has come without a price tag. It has cost us nothing.”

Canadian innocence may be tarnished in Vanderhaeghe’s books, but in George Bowering’s Shoot!, from 1994, it’s non-existent. Bowering satirizes the smug assurances: “Canadian history is mainly written by schoolteachers who know a lot about the Government. If an individual with a gun shows up, he had better be an American or else.” The derision is obvious, given that his novel tells the story of the “wild McLean boys” of Hat Creek, British Columbia, who were hanged in 1881 for killing the magistrate and gold commissioner John Ussher. The McLeans were the mixed-race sons of Donald McLean, a Hudson’s Bay Company trader in what is today Kamloops. Bowering portrays McLean as a brutal murderer of Indigenous people:

In the old days the Hudson’s Bay Company used to whip Indians and threaten their families. The Americans shot them. Now the Provincial Judges came around on their circuits and hanged them, and sometimes hanged white men who got liquored up and shot people.

In the novel, as in history, McLean leaves his sons in poverty when he is killed in the 1864 Chilcotin War.

Fred Stenson is similarly dismissive of Can­adian innocence. The first of his three Westerns, The Trade, from 2000, covers several decades near the end of the fur trade, as the Hudson’s Bay Company, governed by the micromanager George Simpson, seeks to exploit the last remaining bonanzas of beaver pelts. Later in the novel, traders are forced to acknowledge how their mere presence stimulates conflict by bringing warring peoples together at the forts, where they exchange furs for muskets.

The Trade posits a West that is the opposite of what Frederick Jackson Turner saw. Stenson’s characters are not free and self-reliant individuals but rather corporate office-holders at the mercy of their overlord’s whims. Instead of romanticized Jeremiah Johnsons free to do as they please, they are victims of and participants in nasty office politics. Simpson upbraids the protagonist, the trader Harriott, when the younger man nearly kills his horse while attempting a perilous mission. “She was my horse,” Harriott tries to explain. “You’re a Company servant,” Simpson responds. “You have no horse.”

Indeed, rather than being a place of freedom, Stenson’s frontier resembles a prison. At one point, Simpson even imagines the West as a future penal colony. “For indolence, cowardice, disloyalty, drunkenness and general lack of pluck — crimes you could not hang or banish for — you could not improve on these districts as places of penance.” Time and again, Simpson and his men seek the “castor El Dorado” of the Upper Missouri River, just south of present-day Alberta. And time and again, they are thwarted by Piegan resistance. In The Trade, the colonial outsiders who forcibly push across the border are those who are travelling south.

The search for resources that could quickly be depleted is a recurring theme in the history of the West, as waves of outsiders exploited beaver pelts, bison hides, gold, and the land. Another recurring theme is irony, which has a powerful presence in Stenson’s third Western, The Great Karoo, from 2008. As it tells the story of the cowboys and NWMP constables who form the Mounted Canadian Rifles during the Boer War, the novel highlights the nearsightedness of a group of men who, having recently occupied the prairies, set off to fight those doing the same thing in South Africa.

“My problem with the Boers is how they took the land from the Bantus and Zulus,” one man says at a recruitment meeting. “Killed them and made them slaves. I say that’s worth a war, on the assumption Britain will treat the blacks any better.” This shortly after the local townsfolk have watched the hanging of Charcoal, a Blood man convicted of killing his wife’s lover and the NWMP officer sent to arrest him. One witness, perhaps a veteran of the fur trade, given his age and French accent, observes, “Yessir me, I ting dey hang da last wild Indian today. . . . Yessir me, I wonder what dey’ll ever do now.”

Irony, in the form of unintended consequences, has always been at the heart of the frontier story. Even Turner acknowledged it. If the challenge of pathfinding, breaking the soil, and, yes, fighting the original inhabitants of the land had produced admirable characteristics in the American personality, what would happen when that challenge was finished? Turner suggested that foreign conquest might be the next step: “The American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves.” Five years later, a force of frontiersmen not unlike the horsemen in The Great Karoo would help the future cowboy president Teddy Roosevelt capture Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

Western movies have also noted the paradox of the frontiersman who makes himself obsolete through conquest. Witness that famous final shot in The Searchers: The obsessive Indian fighter Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, has rescued his niece from the Comanche. He stands alone outside the family’s cabin, with no place in the domestic world of the now‑safe West.

Alix Hawley tackles this tension in her portrayal of the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone, who led a small group of settlers into Kentucky during the American Revolution — the first such European settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains. In her two novels, All True Not a Lie in It, from 2015, and My Name Is a Knife, from 2018, she presents Boone as a man who knows he doesn’t belong in a civilized land and is acutely aware of the tragedy he brings upon himself and Kentucky.

Hawley takes pains to show how the Boone family, lapsed Quakers from Pennsylvania, are driven toward the frontier by social disapproval and poverty. When Boone leads settlers to the fort that will eventually bear his name, a land speculator named Hill tells him the new settlement won’t be a place for “border trash,” implying, though not quite saying, “present company excepted.” (On Turner’s frontier, the low-born hero can achieve greatness through his courage, strength, and talents alone.)

Boone loves Kentucky as he finds it — rich in deer and bison and largely free of the original inhabitants (much of the Ohio Valley having been depopulated by disease and inter-tribal conflict). And yet he comes to know that he is destroying it. “I want to believe that this is Heaven now just here,” he says. “Is there any great wrong in wanting Heaven now?” After Boone is captured by the Shawnee, he prospers in their company, enjoying life among them more than he did among the settlers, who blame him for the shortcomings of their expedition.

Hawley’s protagonist is a far cry from the plastic hero played by Fess Parker in the 1960s television series Daniel Boone, but Hollywood legends die hard — and some are simply immune to revision. At one point, Boone confronts the speculator who uses his reputation to attract investors: “Hill, you are not telling the truth. I was not the first there, you know that.” Hill replies with “What does that matter? It is my book.”

In My Name Is a Knife, Hawley gives equal time to the challenges of Boone’s wife, Rebecca, who endures hardship, the deaths of her children, abuse from angry family and neighbours, and Daniel’s frequent and lengthy absences. She tells Daniel that the source of their troubles is his inborn dissatisfaction with where he is: “Your poor old ma told me that you were born hands‑first. Reaching for some other place already.”

After the real-life Daniel Boone was eventually forced out of Kentucky by his debts and disputes, he settled in present-day Missouri, when it was still a Spanish possession. He lived long enough to see the territory change hands multiple times, long enough for it to become a state and the jumping-off point for thousands of dissatisfied men seeking a better place further west.

Hawley is not the only writer of her generation to focus on the American frontier instead of the Canadian one. Patrick deWitt, for example, hit the big time in 2011 with The Sisters Brothers, a dark comedy about a pair of hired guns who are hunting a German prospector in the California Gold Rush (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix played them in the 2018 film adaptation). In À la recherche de New Babylon, from 2015, Dominique Scali had a cast of nineteenth-century characters wander throughout the High Plains and the American Southwest (W. Donald Wilson’s translation, In Search of New Babylon, came out in 2017). And Tyler Enfield set his 2020 novel, Like Rum‑Drunk Angels, in California and the Arizona Territory and filled it with references to Gabriel García Márquez and Arabian Nights. Whatever their other merits, these Westerns can feel less like explorations of the frontier and more like playful manipulations of storytelling tropes, as when Enfield adds deliberate anachronism by having young women toss their underwear at a glamorous train robber.

But a deadly serious irony is at the heart of Clifford Jackman’s dark debut, The Winter Family. Published in 2015, it explores violence in politics as it follows a band of outlaws, led initially by the psychopath Quentin Ross and later by the even more psychopathic Augustus Winter. At first, the gang fights for the “good side.” They come together in 1864, during William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, which breaks the back of the Confederacy. Made outlaws because they take “war is hell” a little too literally, they then confront the Klan during Reconstruction. After they take that fight too far, they’re given a chance to redeem themselves by challenging Chicago Democrats in the 1876 election (this was when the Republicans were the less overtly racist party). When the gang, predictably, takes this third contest too far, members head west as committed desperadoes.

In 1889, just before the rush of Sooners into what has until then been set aside as Indian Territory, the gang is given one last chance to make a big score — by helping a group of land-hungry settlers wipe out a Native village that stands in their way. But Augustus Winter knows that opportunities to carry out robberies and evade the Pinkertons are disappearing along with the frontier, so it would be better to attack the rich men who’ve hired them. Get one big score, he argues, and hightail it out of the business:

This ain’t nothing compared to how bad it’s gonna get. Ten years ago if the law was on you, why, you’d just run into the woods. There was always more country. . . . Now it’s just Oklahoma. And after the big land run in April, Oklahoma’s not even Oklahoma anymore. Nothing but towns and railways . . .

The end of the lawless frontier as an end to freedom is the Turner corollary that gave us such Westerns as The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s also a key theme in Gil Adamson’s second novel, Ridgerunner, a finalist for the 2020 Giller Prize.

Unlike many other novelists of her generation, Adamson looks to the Canadian West. She also pushes her timeline past the symbolic frontier cut‑off of 1890. The first of her two novels, The Outlander, from 2007, is the story of Mary Boulton — or “the bride”— a woman who is chased through the prairies and foothills toward the Crowsnest Pass after killing her husband. It’s a dreamlike text, filled with memorable and surreal scenes both entirely imaginary (an arrow attack in early twentieth-century Alberta) and stranger than fiction (the obliteration of a mining town in the 1903 Frank Slide).

Ridgerunner focuses on Mary’s second husband, an outlaw named William Moreland, nicknamed the Ridgerunner, and her fourteen-year-old son, Jack Boulton. After his mother’s death, and with his father on a robbing spree in Montana in an attempt to stockpile money for the future, Jack is taken in by a wealthy former nun who lives in Banff and is determined to “civilize” the boy. There are hints of Huck Finn in Jack’s predicament: the “orphaned” child taken in by a woman who cleans him up, sends him to school, and gives him a proper name — Charles D’Arcy Euphastus Cload. (The renaming also echoes an all too familiar residential-school narrative, especially considering the nasty nun.)

Ridgerunner is set primarily in Banff National Park, at a moment so far removed from the frontier era that governments are frantically trying to preserve any unsettled wilderness that’s left. This effort means cutting the Nakoda off from the land — all in the service of paying big-game hunters who come to re-enact their Daniel Boone fantasies.

With Canada embroiled in the First World War, foreign nationals from hostile nations — mostly Ukrainians originally from the Austro-Hungarian Empire — are locked in an internment camp near Castle Mountain. The wilderness that represents freedom to some is, again, quite literally a prison. Young Jack, himself on the lam after escaping the nun, sees in the camp a dispiriting message from the future:

He could not do this every day, hovering over the work area, watching men who would forever be prisoners. For this was a war without end, or it felt like that to him. This was life from now on.

Forced to work, the prisoners help build a highway that will connect Banff with the train station in Laggan, now Lake Louise. (Today, that highway goes through country that’s so wild the government has had to construct several multi-million-dollar overpasses for deer and elk. Even the wolves have learned to use the infrastructure to ambush prey.) When Jack tries to return to the life he once knew, trouble finds him — thanks to both the nun and prison camp. Even in the vast and rugged Rockies, Ridgerunner reminds us, the era of freedom is quickly coming to an end.

When Jack’s father, William Moreland, jumps a train during his crime spree, he ends up in Lethbridge, the first city he’s ever seen. It’s a disquieting place for a man accustomed to a remote cabin: “It really was a wonder of progress. But like all wonders, natural or otherwise, it made your own life seem temporary, and it told you things about the passage of time you didn’t want to know.”

Whether they celebrate Turner’s frontier thesis or complicate it, virtually all Westerns are haunted by the word “last”: The last buffalo hunt. The last gunfight. The last roundup. The middle book in Vanderhaeghe’s trilogy was The Last Crossing. In American Westerns, the last frontier is often Mexico, as it was for Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, vamoosing to the Mexican Revolution around the same time that Jack and William are trying to evade the authorities around Banff. Cormac McCarthy, in his Border Trilogy set in the 1940s and ’50s, advances the temporal boundary further still, with a kind of frontier drama in the mountains and deserts of northern Mexico.

It’s fitting that in a Canadian novel of the late frontier, we end up in a national park. Parks are, after all, rife with our frontier fantasies. They are where we reconnect with our wild side while wearing space-age synthetic fabrics and carrying satellite navigation equipment. They are where we seek an authentic experience in an area that has been artificially delineated as a wild place — supposedly stripped of human influence, except for that of commerce. They even provide tourism entrepreneurs with dreams of gold — yet another chapter in the ongoing quest for El Dorado.